Mural, Balfour Avenue by Liam Gillick

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Place Category: Public Art

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  • Many people bring a heightened concept of art to any encounter with it. Artists, however, like scientists, tend to be questioning the nature of their own field, not reinforcing it. The conceptual rigor and creativity of contemporary theoretical physics would seem a perfect arena for play and interchange, not of art and science but idea, proposition and temporary solution. With this project it was necessary to acknowledge the potential of specialised areas. To embrace the linguistic and conceptual complexity of contemporary theoretical physics. To sit back for a second, propose a series of conceits and then allow the tide to flow over me and anyone else foolish enough to stand with their back to a flood of ideas.

    Last summer the New York Times published the results of a conference of string-theory specialists in America. On the last day of their conference these theoretical Physicists had polled each other to draw up a list of the ten questions they would like to see answered if they were meeting again in 100 years time. Despite the light-hearted end-of-conference mood, the questions stood out from the usual relativist mush of newspaper coverage of both science and art. A little slippage of specialist language into a newspaper that privileges the myth of clarity and objectivity but normally suppresses specialist language outside the financial pages. These questions formed the base for my project in Belfast. The key to my work was to pass on the questions in various forms in order to provide new contexts for the notion of the questions themselves in terms of their re-location around a city, their entry into the everyday, while at the same time creating a forum where the whole notion of the “questions” and how to address them might require some elegance, conceit and play. All of this was carried out with an awareness that the classic Anglo-Saxon response to the complexities of Ireland has been to look for a “solution” to the “Irish problem” and not look more carefully at the nature of the “questions” and how they are constantly re-framed in a dynamic society.

    Bill Graham at Queen’s University, Belfast, set up a one day conference and enabled a web-site open to the public where the background and potential challenges to the questions could be made. Approaches to him had been made by curators Phil Collins and Annie Fletcher and the role of the physicists from Queens was crucial. The fundamental issue here was an exposure of notions of explanation and conceit. A constant flickering between understanding and specialised focus. Involved, elegant analysis of the questions themselves was combined with a degree of play and intellectual competition.

    Throughout the city the curators, operating semi-independently from myself, found locations for the questions. Murals on the sides of buildings were painted in collaboration with local community activists. Plaques went up in Habitat, the local taxi rank, the bar where Gerry Adams used to work as a student and elsewhere. The Europa hotel, symbolic alongside the bombed out shells of Beirut for anyone growing up in the Seventies offered a location and lodging. This was a project that attempted to draw focus away from the fetish of authorship and self-presentation within the art context and expose the level of inter-change that is possible once you meld ideas and offer the hard questions up front to those who are often prevented from taking part in specialisation. The presentation of these questions in a city like Belfast was both a provocation to the everyday and a celebration of intelligence and achievement in the midst of struggle and a search for identity. Thanks to Dr Andrew Whitaker, Ciaran Lewis, Dr Fred Currell, Bill Graham, G. Gribakin and others, the project did not get bogged down in a search for metaphorical inter-disciplinary generalisations that are spurious at best, but provided a matrix of ideas that left all involved with a sense of vertigo and, in my case, at least some understanding of the root of “the question” itself.

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